Artistic reputations often rise, fall, and shift over time. Shakespeare, for instance, was once regarded as an uneducated bumpkin (a “poet of nature,” as Samuel Johnson wrote). Contemporaries of the English painter J.M.W. Turner dismissed his abstract late works—now celebrated—as symptoms of senility. (John Ruskin, otherwise a fervent admirer, lamented that they were “of wholly inferior value.”)
Even amid this context, the fall and rise of Nicholas Hawksmoor is an astonishing story. The master of the English Baroque—who worked on St. Paul’s Cathedral alongside Sir Christopher Wren, left several other incomparable churches looming over London, and collaborated with Sir John Vanbrugh on the grand country estate of Castle Howard in North Yorkshire—was nearly lost to history. Critics long portrayed Hawksmoor as a minor and eccentric talent, an assistant to Wren and Vanbrugh who couldn’t match them in any respect.
And those were the friendly verdicts. After the Palladianist Lord Burlington gained influence in the 1720s, Hawksmoor’s esoteric blend of the classical and the Gothic fell out of favor. By the 19th century, writes Owen Hopkins in From the Shadows: The Architecture and Afterlife of Nicholas Hawksmoor (Reaktion Books, 2016), his churches were viewed by some Londoners as grotesque and prison-like (partly because of the soot that had blackened their white bands of Portland stone).
Although Wren enjoyed a mini-revival in the 1880s, Hawksmoor had no such luck; for Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo, the author of the 1883 book Wren’s City Churches, Hawksmoor’s St. Mary Woolnoth in London was just “a mass of piled-up plagiarism” by an architect who “never was able to refine his native coarseness.”
Hopkins, an architecture curator at the Royal Academy of Art, traces two arcs in his new book: Hawksmoor’s architectural career and his posthumous legacy, which went into a long decline before its recent and vigorous upturn. In just over 300 pages, Hopkins combines an engaging survey of Hawksmoor’s buildings with a thoughtful assessment of his critical fortunes. The two halves don’t form a perfectly satisfying whole, but Hopkins ably conveys Hawksmoor’s genius while explaining how preservation battles over the churches, literary homages to Hawksmoor, careful research, and changing tastes all conspired to push Hawksmoor into the first rank of British architects.
Like Shakespeare’s, Hawksmoor’s biographical details are sketchy. He was born to a farming family in Nottinghamshire, probably in 1662, and had at least some secondary education. He clerked for a justice and apprenticed in a plasterer’s workshop before joining the household of Sir Christopher Wren as a factotum. A few years later, after a draftsman left Wren’s office, Hawksmoor filled the vacancy. Thus began his rapid rise through the ranks; by 1685 he was working on drawings for St. Paul’s, and in 1689 he was named Clerk of Works at Kensington Palace, a royal post that Wren secured for him.
Hawksmoor distinguished himself in Wren’s office by being an extraordinarily quick study, as drawings in the book make clear. The first one we see is a topographical sketch of Oxford that Hawksmoor made while on a tour of English towns. He was 20 or 21, but the sketch could have been made by someone much younger; it shows a general sense of spatial awareness but is otherwise crude, as Hopkins acknowledges. The next drawing is an elevation of St. Paul’s in gray ink and wash, dating from only a few years later, with a breathtaking level of skill in technical draftsmanship. It nearly defies belief that a person could learn so much in so short a time.
Hawksmoor worked under Wren for many years, serving as a project manager for the Royal Naval Hospital at Greenwich. His next boss was Vanbrugh, a brilliant amateur who turned to architecture after stints as a playwright and a spy. Their relationship was not that of mentor and protégé, as it was with Wren, but “a creative partnership,” Hopkins writes, “which was to prove a vital catalyst for Hawksmoor’s independent career.” At Blenheim Castle (now famous as Winston Churchill’s childhood home) and Castle Howard (where the TV series Brideshead Revisited was filmed), Hawksmoor and Vanbrugh held to the principle that the “air” of a building—that is, its overall impression—matters more than how it conforms to a specific style.
The decisive point in Hawskmoor’s career came in 1711, when the 49-year-old architect was appointed as surveyor to the grandly named Commission for Building Fifty New Churches. In this capacity, Hawksmoor designed the six London churches (plus two more with John James) now regarded as his most important buildings. Hopkins vividly describes Hawksmoor’s instinct for manipulating volume and mass, and the often visceral effect his buildings have on their viewers:
“Being confronted by one of Hawksmoor’s churches today, it is still hard not to be bowled over by their colossal, almost overblown scale and the sheer intensity of their layered, abstract masonry. Thinking particularly of his three East London churches, approaching them from the side we see vast expanses of smooth white Portland stone, punctuated by windows and doors that are seemingly punched through the masonry. Exaggerated keystones weigh heavy, almost teetering above them. The towers and spires, too, resist the force of gravity with an almost tangible energy as they push upwards from the main body of each of the churches. … It is architecture that wears its heart on its sleeve; it has a vigour and richness with few peers in London or beyond.”
If Hawksmoor’s buildings are so moving, why did his reputation suffer? Hopkins blames a few factors: the rise of doctrinaire Palladianism (his description of how Lord Burlington actively interfered with an elderly Hawksmoor as he designed the mausoleum at Castle Howard is sad and infuriating), and the Victorian distaste for 18th-century “Gothick” architecture, on display in Hawksmoor’s work at All Souls’ College in Oxford (including the Codrington Library), and in his renovations to Westminster Abbey. But perhaps the biggest problem was Hawksmoor’s own modest, self-deprecating personality. A commoner with no sense of entitlement, he was so good-natured that his achievements were eventually subsumed by the outsized legacy of Wren (and to a lesser extent, of Vanbrugh). “I never talk’d with a more reasonable man,” one associate observed, “nor with one so little prejudiced in favour of his own performances.”
The modest Hawksmoor is nevertheless having a moment right now: Hélène Binet’s sumptuous photographs of his London churches were exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 2012, then packaged into a book, Nicholas Hawksmoor: London Churches (Lars Müller Publishers), released to some acclaim last year. One thing From the Shadows does well is to show just how gradual this rehabilitation has been, starting back in the 1920s—when the Church of England proposed demolishing St. Mary Woolnoth in a consolidation drive—and gaining momentum after World War II. Even as late as 1945, the architectural historian John Summerson, a passionate defender of Hawksmoor, could refer to him repeatedly and unwittingly as “Hawksmore” in print, the name was so unfamiliar.
The tide turned in the ’50s and ’60s, thanks to the pioneering research of an architectural historian named Kerry Downes and the formation of the “Hawksmoor Committee,” a coalition of arts patrons, writers, and architects who lobbied to save Hawksmoor’s dilapidated churches from oblivion. Summerson, Sir John Betjeman, and Sir Nikolaus Pevsner joined the committee, as did Denys Lasdun, the Smithsons, and Philip Johnson. In a funny anecdote, Hopkins describes how T.S. Eliot priggishly refused on the grounds that the letter announcing the committee was poorly written. (He returned the draft to an organizer with exclamation marks in the margins.)
The appeal that Hawksmoor held for Brutalist architects like Lasdun and the Smithsons is easy to understand. Early in the book, Hopkins includes a drawing of one church that is a startlingly abstract study of form and massing, the details hardly visible. Hawksmoor the proto-Brutalist is just one of multiple Hawksmoors who have sprung up in recent decades, joined by Hawksmoor the Postmodern precursor (an example for Robert Venturi, FAIA, and James Stirling) and Hawksmoor the devil-worshipping occultist, a figment of Peter Ackroyd’s literary imagination (his novel Hawksmoor was published in 1985).
Some of the section on Hawksmoor’s rebirth drags, after the brisk pace of the book’s first half; we probably don’t need to know, for instance, the back story of the publisher who released Downes’ first book. But the lesson here is important: You can’t hope to restore an architect’s reputation overnight. It took decades of activism and research—plus some lucky breaks, like most of the churches surviving German bombs—to make Hawksmoor matter to Britons after hundreds of years of obscurity.
This might seem discouraging to those who worry about the ongoing destruction of Brutalist and postmodernist buildings. How many more will we lose before attitudes change? But the Hawksmoor Committee’s patience paid off, and that was pre-Internet, when everything took longer. Perhaps, since we have learned to value his idiosyncratic work, the Hawksmoor revival will help in some small way to save “difficult” modern buildings that are monumental, or spatially complex, or highly allusive. It would be a nice and fitting next chapter to his story.